“I have heard of the great battle in the sky!”
The man with the cinnamon hair and the walnut-wood beard turned to the boy who had spoken.
“Have you?” the man said. “How curious? Tell me of it.”
The boy raised his arms to the sky and began speaking.
Though the daylight festival was nearly over, he still had to raise his voice above the bards who were still plucking their lyres upon the smaller stages.
The man had only arrived at dusk, and seated himself at a table near the periphery of the festivities. As usual, most let him be, but a few of the younger villagers dared to join him. He let them sit, and he would have let them ask their questions, if they had asked any. But to his amusement—and perhaps a small measure of relief—the boy had begun answering his own question.
As the boy described a particularly terrible storm, the man drank his drink.
The boy finished his tale and gazed at the man, who only replied, “Well told.”
The man said no more. For a moment, there hung an expectant silence. The man was watching the bard on the closest stage, but he still caught the glances between the young folk at his table. And he still noted that there was one whose gaze never left his face.
“The grown folk won’t tell us,” this one said, a little girl. “Are you the one who lives in the wooden house in the middle of the forest?”
The man took his last sip and set his tumbler down. Nightfall was fast approaching. He rose from the table and tipped his head forward. “I must bid you farewell now.”
He turned to the girl. “And yes, I am the one who lives in the middle of the forest.”
He turned, and his cloak swept about him and fluttered behind him as strode away.
“We must follow him,” the girl said.
The older of the young folk at the table shook their heads and tried to lure the children toward the dinner tent. A warm waft of wind carried the scent of buttery cakes soaked in honey and apple slices dipped in caramel.
The girl—whose names was Lin—kept her gaze fixed firmly on the figure drifting away from the festival. She and two of her friends assured their older minders that they would be along shortly.
Being old enough to find their own way to dinner, the three were left alone.
And though they knew their way to the dinner tent and did long for sweets, they had eaten heartily throughout the day, and were feeling nourished enough to go on a jaunt in the woods.
They followed the man as quietly as they could, keeping their distance, and keeping hidden.
One of them was the same boy who’d told the tale of the stormy night, and this boy—whose name was San—had noted something curious about the man, something he could not wait to ask his friends about.
“He had no scent, did he?” he whispered to Lin as they stopped to hide behind the trunk of an oak, when the man stopped and turned around.
Their other friend—whose name was Dun—crept up behind them and tugged at their sleeves. She said nothing, but gestured to the path leading back to the festival and to the village.
But Lin forged ahead with San only but a step behind her.
And sooner than they had expected, they reached a clearing within which stood a wooden house.
In their grandparents’ time, that house had been a hut, a stone hut.
A tale was told about that time, about a man living in the middle of the forest in a stone hut that smelled of amber. And another man coming to challenge him. A great storm fell upon the land, but the villagers say it was caused by a great battle in the skies between the two men, who were actually gods. When it was over, the hut in the forest began to smell of sandalwood.
That’s all that was known. Who the gods were and why they fought, and why one was living on the outskirts of their village remained a mystery.
The children began to sniff their noses then, for they all smelled a scent that they had been expecting to smell all along.
The clearing was rather large, and so there was no place for the children to hide if they wished to creep closer. And while Dun had seen all that she wished to see, her friends were still curious.
The house was not wide but it was high. It had three floors. When a light appeared at a window of the topmost floor, Lin was curious enough to climb a tree to have a closer look. She told the others to stay on the ground. Once she found a comfortable enough spot, she would summon them upwards.
But even from the high branches that hung level with the third floor, Lin was not close enough to see anything but a vague shape moving about. She crept further out onto the branch. She heard whispers from below. Dun was likely urging her to climb back down, and she would. But first she had to go as far as she could.
Lin heard a snap.
The branch that held her up fell away.
She too fell, so slowly that she surely had time to catch herself on another branch.
So quickly that she struck the ground and all went black.
Lin blinked her eyes in surprise.
She struggled to breath, for the fall had knocked the breath out of her. When she was able to draw a breath, she did so. At once a shard of agony stabbed her through and she cried out.
San and Dun were around her at once.
Lin began to gasp. She heard nothing. Saw nothing. Felt nothing but pain.
Dun reached toward her, but San slapped her hand away.
“Run!” Lin said, for the man in the house had surely heard her scream. He would come out, and he would not be happy to find the three children spying on him.
Dun rose and took a step back. But San knelt beside Lin. “Dun will go for help,” he said. “I’ll stay.”
“Are you sure you can’t move?” Dun asked.
Lin had fallen so she was facing the clearing. She saw a figure emerge from the wooden house. She reached for San’s hand and held it.
When the figure came closer, they saw it was the man, of course, but he looked somewhat different. His hair was sandy, like Dun’s, and his eyes too were golden, rich and radiant. The skin of his face was smooth.
Lin felt caution, but no fear.
The man knelt down before Lin. “A broken leg,” he said. “But little else. You are lucky.”
He rose. “I offer you a choice. I have a carriage that can take you back home, if you wish. Or I can take you inside and treat your bone. I will have to examine it more closely to be sure. But I believe the break is clean. And if that is so, then it would be healed by morning.”
Dun knelt beside Lin and San. She urged the others to choose the carriage.
“Strange,” San said. “Where could he be hiding a carriage?”
The house was not broad, and it seemed to be the only building in the clearing. There was no stables. No garden. No fountains. No paths. Only the house.
“Please,” Lin said. “Let’s go inside. I’ll die if I have to bear a carriage ride.”
“You can take the carriage,” San said to Dun. “And we’ll go inside.”
Dun sighed and bowed her head. “No, we should stay together.”
Praying that the man would not bewitch them somehow, they accepted his invitation to come inside his home, an invitation that only moments past, would have thrilled Lin.
Through her pain, she had not noted it. But once the man gave Lin a salve to drink that dulled her pain within five heartbeats, she took a deep indulgent breath and smelled the rich and warm scent of sandalwood all around her.
They were settled in the front room, which looked like any other that Lin had visited in the village. She lay upon a couch before one of the very windows that she’d sought to see past with her spying.
San and Dun stayed by her side as the man placed a gentle hand below her knee and nodded. Though Lin felt no pain, he advised her not to move. Dun raised the cuff of Lin’s trousers and gasped when she saw the bruised bulge on her friend’s leg.
The man wrapped a bandage around the broken bone. The bandage was soaked in some sticky liquid or potion tinged green. Then he set small planks of wood around the break and wrapped them as well. Lin had seen it done on her older brother when he’d broken his arm.
But his arm had taken weeks to heal.
“It may feel warm,” man said as he finished tying the last delicate knot. “And a bit itchy. Otherwise there should be no discomfort.”
As he cleared away the healing implements, and went to what they guessed was his kitchen, the children put their heads together and whispered again.
“How shall we make amends?” Lin asked, her gaze darting about the room, making note of every detail, though there was nothing of note to note.
“For spying and giving him no choice but to care for us?” San shook his head. “I don’t think he would accept a reward—even if we had one to give.”
“Now,” the man said, sweeping back into the front room. “You must leave before dawn breaks. You will be healed by then, my little friend.” He pointed his finger up. “Before dawn breaks.”
His eyes gleamed when he spoke, with the colors of honey and molasses.
The children promised to leave before dawn. And they promised to be quiet all night so that their host could sleep soundly.
At this second promise, the man laughed and said, “I would be a poor host if I slept while my guests remained anxious.”
And he offered another favor, the favor of a story to calm them so that they could sleep through the storm—so long as they woke and left before dawn broke.
As he spoke, Lin heard a pattering outside and upon the roof. She glanced out the window, and saw that it was raining. The air beside the window grew cold. A distant rumble of thunder warned of a coming storm.
Though there was no fireplace, the house was warm and dry. And it was bright with a golden green light.
Their host sat across from them.
“Do you know,” he began, “that there was a man who once came across an extraordinary being, and he was granted great powers by this being so that he could serve. But the being’s needs were few. So the man exercised his powers and tested them, by challenging others who had been given similar powers. He earned the admiration of his fellows. And sometimes—often, their fear.”
“What kind of being?” San asked. Lin and Dun shushed him. The rain began to drum upon the roof.
“One day,” the man continued, “he came across a magnificent castle in the midst of a forest, a castle more glorious than any he had seen. The one who lived in the castle had enchanted it, to hide it from the sight of other mortals, for the castle-dweller too possessed great powers. The man challenged this castle-dweller, fought him with all his powers. The man won, and banished the other from the castle.”
Lin felt a tickling from within her wounded leg. She had the urge to reach under her bandages and scratch. She curled her hands into fists as the man’s gleaming gaze shifted past her, pausing for a blink, before moving on to Dun and San.
“While he gloated in his castle,” the man said, “the being who’d granted him his powers came looking for him and found him. This being—who takes many forms and is therefore difficult to describe—was none too pleased, and punished the man for his ill use of the great powers he’d been so graciously granted. The being took the form of a sprout at dawn, and grew into a tall tree by nightfall, a tree so tall that it burst through the castle’s ceilings. A tree so persistent that its roots reached every part of the castle’s foundation and turned all stone to dust.”
The man glanced at San. “I am certain you will ask. So I will answer. The tree was a sandalwood.”
A soft gasp escaped Dun. Lin and San exchanged a glance and a smile.
“The sandalwood declared that the man was unworthy of his powers,” their host continued, “but they were his powers to keep, as they had been granted as a gift. The only way to remove them was to destroy the man. And the sandalwood, who for some strange reason had great affection for this man, would not do that. All that the sandalwood did was entreat the man to surrender all his powers and repent.”
Here their host leaned forward in his seat. “What do you suppose the man did then?”
“I wouldn’t want to surrender great powers,” Lin said.
San crossed his arms. “But I wouldn’t want my friend to be angry with me.”
The man smiled. “Indeed, you are both correct. The man was puzzled. He had thought his benefactor would be pleased and proud of his accomplishment. He would gladly repent, if…if only knew what he was repenting for. The sandalwood told him to learn by doing what his predecessor had done.
“In all the time that the man had lived in the castle, he had never gone to the village at the border of the forest. He was loathe to be among people again. They only reminded him of how little he had been before he had been granted his great powers. But the man too had great affection for his benefactor, and he had vowed to serve. So he did as the sandalwood suggested. He spent a single day among those whom he had come to see as…’little.’
“And as he had when he too was little, he grew fond of some of the villagers, enough to feel uneasy when they spoke of the great battle between the man who now dwelt in the castle, and the one who had dwelt there before. When evening fell, the man returned to the sandalwood and asked what this unease was that he felt, and why. But the sandalwood told him that he must find the answer himself.”
Their host sighed and sat back. The gleam in his eyes seemed to dim, and he glanced down. “The man searched his memory, and remembered that the uneasy feeling he felt had a name. And it was called ‘shame.’ He had not realized, or even sought to find out, how his battle with his rival had brought such destruction upon the villagers and their village.”
Their looked up at them again, and the gleam returned to his eyes.
“He knelt before the sandalwood, the being who had so generously shared power. The man repented and surrendered all the powers he had been granted. But the sandalwood allowed him to keep one, one power of his choosing.”
Their host glanced at Lin, then at her wounded leg. “He chose to keep the power to heal.”
Their host rose from his seat. He drew the curtain as lightning flashed and thunder cracked outside. He returned to his seat.
“The power only worked at night and was lost by dawn the next day,” he said, “and it only worked on the grounds of the fallen castle. And as part of his penance, the man would never remember the feeling of delight, of satisfaction, and of relief after helping someone to heal.”
The children knew that the man was telling them his own story, but they were not sure if they should remark upon it. Even San, full of questions as he always was, asked no questions.
“It’s a wonderful story, sir,” Lin said. “We thank you for telling it.”
San and Dun too expressed their gratitude for the well-told tale.
The man smiled and bowed his head. “There are rooms for guests above. But you will be most comfortable down here, I daresay.”
The children watched him climb a few steps. Then, he stopped and turned back to them.
“The carriage will be waiting just outside the door,” he said. “Remember, leave before dawn. Even if I do not descend to see you off. You must leave before dawn.”
Lin noticed that the man was leaning against the banister. His eyelids drooped. “Are you well, sir?”
“I am ready for rest. You too should rest. Farewell, until we meet again.” He continued up the stairs.
The children vowed to stay awake. They could sleep when they reached home. They feared what might happen if they did not follow their host’s one instruction.
Dun suggested Lin should sleep, while she and San took turns. That way one of them would always be awake.
Lin would have protested, but a heavy sleep already pressed upon her.
So it was that Lin found herself being shaken awake by Dun. The children waited a while for their host to come down. When he did not, even after the sky outside began to brighten, they judged they could wait no longer.
As he said, there was a carriage waiting for them outside. The carriage had no driver, but as soon as the children were aboard, the horse began to walk.
Lin’s leg no longer felt warm or itchy. And it certainly did not hurt. Her friends helped her to remove the bandages and the splint. She carefully bent her leg. Aside from some stiffness, it was as if her leg had never broken.
She poked her head out of the carriage window to take a final look at the wooden house in the middle of the forest. But it wasn’t a house she saw. She summoned her friends to the window.
In the clearing where they had slept, there stood a tall tree, resplendent and fragrant of sandalwood.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel